A well-housetrained dog is a requirement for most pet owners. In fact, behavior problems are a common cause of relinquishment
to animal shelters, and inappropriate elimination has been reported to make up 15% to 24% of the behavior problems seen in
veterinary behavior clinics.1 While keeping a poorly trained dog confined outdoors is one solution, it does little to maintain or establish a strong bond
between a dog and its owner. And keeping a social species such as the domesticated dog confined and alone is likely to result
in a relatively poor quality of life for the dog.
General practitioners should be prepared to assist pet owners by inquiring about housetraining issues at the first puppy visit.
Teaching acceptable elimination habits is much easier when an animal is still young; changing the behavior of an adult dog
with objectionable habits will only get more difficult the longer the dog practices the unacceptable behavior. Basic puppy
housetraining has been covered well elsewhere, so this article focuses on some of the more complex challenges that can arise
when trying to housetrain dogs of any age.
NORMAL CANINE ELIMINATION BEHAVIOR
Housetraining a dog will be more easily accomplished with a basic understanding of normal canine elimination behavior. During
the first few weeks of life, the bitch licks the urogenital area of her pups to initiate elimination and then ingests the
waste. By about 3 weeks of age, the puppies begin moving away from the nest to eliminate, and by 5 weeks of age, they begin
choosing a specific location for elimination.2 By 8 to 9 weeks of age, the elimination location and substrate have become more established.3 So 7 1/2 to 8 1/2 weeks of age is the best time to housetrain a puppy.4 Dogs acquired after that age can still be housetrained, but they may have already established some location and substrate
preferences that are unacceptable to their owners. These dogs may simply require more time and patience.
The principles of housetraining apply regardless of a dog's age or experience. Briefly, these principles include closely supervising
the dog and confining it when supervision is not possible, providing food and water on a consistent schedule, giving rewards
for appropriate behavior, teaching a cue for elimination, and avoiding punishment. Use the handout to review these principles
with pet owners.
When presented with an adult dog that is housesoiling, first determine whether the dog was ever completely housetrained. If
the owner can verify that the dog was at one time completely housetrained, then the next step is to rule out any medical conditions
that might lead to increased frequency of elimination, urgency, incontinence, or difficulty in accessing the proper site for
Once you've ruled out medical problems, consider other causes of housesoiling. Anxiety disorders (e.g. separation anxiety, environmental or storm fear or phobia), age-related cognitive decline, inclement weather (making a dog
reluctant to go outdoors), and changes in the owner's schedule leading to poor timing in taking the dog outside to relieve
itself are just a few examples of problems that can contribute to a lapse in housetraining.
Dogs with anxiety disorders or age-related cognitive decline are unlikely to benefit from typical housetraining approaches
alone; these conditions will need to be treated first to resolve the housesoiling issues. Treatment for these conditions has
been well-covered elsewhere.5
SOILING IN A CRATE
A dog's natural tendency to avoid soiling its den area is just one of several behavioral features that can be used to aid
in housetraining. However, for a variety of reasons, a pet owner may be faced with a dog that does not seem to mind lying
in its own waste. One of the most common reasons this occurs is the pet owner repeatedly leaves the dog confined for too long,
and the dog eventually eliminates because it is uncomfortable and cannot hold it any longer. In these cases, the dog learns
to tolerate lying in urine and feces and may even develop a substrate preference.